#29: Dive Buddies - Volunteer Mike A.

I came to the New England Aquarium about five years ago to dive in the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT) after having won the dive at a high school fund raiser. I loved the dive, asked to volunteer and was accepted. That five years has became a lot more than just the over 600 hundred dives I have completed in the GOT.

I was born in Chicago more years ago than I like to remember and grew up in the suburbs. I did undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin in philosophy, attended graduate school in European history at University of Michigan and New York University.

I spent over a year in central Italy working on research for my dissertation. Upon my return to NYU, I was very active in the antiwar movement and worked for the graduate school government as its press secretary. Later I worked as a lobbyist in Albany, N.Y for the Student Association of SUNY.

Following the year with the Student Association, I taught various European history courses at several colleges in New Jersey as well as at one of the state prisons.

When my first daughter, Liz, arrived I became increasingly unhappy with academia and the low pay I was earning. I took my savings and started speculating in commodities, mostly gold futures contracts. I was lucky and made enough to leave academia behind forever and basically do what I'd dreamed about: learning to fly.

I received my private pilot's license in 1978 at the airport in Princeton, N.J, and it was a dream come true. After moving to Boston I completed instrument training at Norwood Airport. I had bought a Cessna 172 and spent a great deal time flying through all kinds of weather all over the eastern U.S. During this time through an acquaintance, I became involved in investing in drilling oil and gas wells in the western U.S and have been doing this continuously since.

Although I left academia I couldn't stop writing and spent years taking poetry workshops around the Boston area. I also had a second daughter, Camille. I begin to enjoy reinventing myself and trying new things. I took up swimming pretty seriously as well as kayaking and rollerblading -both of which I continue to do.

I also joined AirLifeLine, a non-profit organization that flew needy patients all over the country for medical treatment. For thirteen years I served as one of their volunteer pilots and eventually became director of operations in New England. In the late eighties, mostly because of all the swimming I'd done, I decided to go deeper and learned to dive at Mass Diving in Natick. Since then I've added to my skills working up to Divemaster two summers ago. The diving led indirectly to my joining with the Aquarium as a volunteer.

Even though I was busy with all the above activities I found time for one more reinvention: music. I'd never learned an instrument and decided it was time. I started lessons on the blues harmonica about two years ago determined to get into a band, which I succeeded in doing last fall. I'm still getting used to all the demands a band makes on a performer but am enjoying it nevertheless.

Back to Aquarium life. Dive volunteers are responsible not only for preparing all the food which is consumed by the animals but also for helping maintain the cleanliness of the GOT. Vacuuming the detritus that accumulates on the bottom of the tank is an important task, and I take great pride in doing a good job. Here are some photos of my work:

Here, the sand separator I'm holding is attached to a hose that runs all the way to the top of the tank, where it is connected to our overflow skimmers. The siphon is a simple gravity-fed operation, where water and debris run to a sump in the mechanics' shop directly below the GOT.

Being a volunteer is a great physical and organizational challenge. The dive team works daily on a tight schedule punctuated with frequent special projects. Helping with this work brings together many of the skills I've aquired over the years for the benefit of an organization which is of great benefit to the Boston area. Perhaps one of the best aspects of my affiliation with the Aquarium are the interesting people I've met and all I've learned. I deeply appreciate the respect I feel I've received from the Aquarium staff who are very sensitive to the contributions volunteers make and the value we bring to the institution.

In short, I can't think of a better place to volunteer for anyone who appreciates the importance of the sea and the educational value the New England Aquarium's GOT imparts to local residents and visitors - many of whom may never have the opportunity to visit a tropical reef environment like the one the GOT simulates right here in Boston.

-Mike A.



#28: Many People Ask - Annual Census

How many fish are in the Giant Ocean Tank? How many sharks? Sea turtles? Stingrays? How many different species are in there? Visitors are always curious to know what they are looking at in the exhibit...

In order to find out, we spend the entire month of December counting each and every fish in the tank. Each staff diver picks a species to concentrate on during a particular dive and tallies their numbers. We keep an on-going record up on the dive office door:

We perform the annual census for different reasons. It allows us to accurately answer our visitor's questions. It's also an important part of record keeping and allows us to monitor, and manage, our collection. Because we have data going back four decades, we can track the longevity of particular species. It is also a requirement for AZA institutions like the New England Aquarium.

Some counts are easy, like the three sand tiger sharks. This is our largest female:

Here's a video of all three (You'll see the smallest one has a superficial mark on its tail):

Two loggerhead sea turtles:

We have two southern stingrays:

And a movie of them too:

One nurse shark:

We use underwater slates to write down note:

We use different techniques for different fish. The angelfish love to eat lettuce so it makes them easier to count:

It takes several divers to get an estimate for some of the schooling fish, like these smallmouth grunts:

We have two cownose rays (one thinks its feeding time):

Some of our fishes include four sargassum triggerfish:

Two scrawled cowfish:

Four balloonfish:

We have three green morays, one spotted moray, and one goldentail moray:

In all, we counted 620 individual fish and 129 different species.

Of course, there's only one Myrtle:

- Sarah



#27: What's Happening - 2008 Things To Remember...

Now that we've moved into an exciting new year, it's easy to plow forward without looking back. But before getting too far into '09, I wanted to put time on hold for just a moment and reminisce over some of the interesting things that the Giant Ocean Tank dive staff experienced during ...

The Best of 2008

  • Sarah went to Utila in Honduras to obtain her PADI Dive Instructor's certification, and actually managed to squeeze in some time working with the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center. Here's a photo of a whale shark from her trip:

  • We had two successful Bahamas collecting expeditions (May and September) - where we collected under permit several hundred animals for exhibit. What's so great about these expeditions is that anyone can participate. If you want to go on the next one this Spring email Sarah at staylor@neaq.org.

  • We got a brand spanking new refrigerator in the food prep room! (This ain't no run-of-the-mill 'fridge either.)

  • We hand-delivered over 14,600 lbs. of protein (such as chopped or whole fish, shrimp, squid, clams, crabs, etc.) and produce (such as lettuce, brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, etc.) to the always hungry mouths of the tank's inhabitants.

  • We had two equally great high school interns - Oriana and Naomi.

  • We also added three new, and invaluable, folks to the ranks of the GOT volunteers - Caitlin, Armando and Jenna.

  • Topping off the people list we had two fantastic Northeastern co-ops - John and Stephany. Each one conducted over three hundred dives in the GOT.

  • We conducted 4,026 GOT dives, spending a whopping 2,632 hours underwater! (That equates to one person spending over three and a half months underwater, 24 hours a day...)

And the exciting thing is--who knows what's going to happen in 2009!



#26: What's Happening - Christmas in the Giant Ocean Tank

Although the Aquarium is closed on Christmas Day, the fish still have visions of squid, shrimp, and krill dancing in their head. The Christmas team that make these visions come true...

Left to right:
Sarah (Diver), John (Diver), Amy (also called John's wife--helps us celebrate Christmas day), Jenna (Volunteer), Kathryn (Water quality tech, the unsung hero who keeps our fish in happy water all year long), Jason (Departing Northeastern Penguin team co-op comes upstairs for a farewell holiday dive) and Dan (Diver)

Amy and Jenna

Christmas goodies, German Christmas Stollen from Ellen

Jenna gets goofy

Gifts for our volunteers

Christmas morning madness

Dive time

Its cold

Look, Mom no hands

Hope you had a happy holiday season!

- John